A love affair with four wheels

Brock Yates June 3 1985

A love affair with four wheels

Brock Yates June 3 1985

A love affair with four wheels


Brock Yates

John Jerome thought he had it right. In his 1972 assault on car culture, titled The Death of the Automobile, he predicted an early demise for the four-wheeled predator that was roaming the civilized landscape with ever-increasing rapacity. According to Jerome, a fine writer and former automotive editor, the end was inevitable: “The automobile will die when it becomes unbearable. When the moment comes, as it will as surely as tomorrow’s polluted dawn —when movement threatens, when to go carries a greater psychic cost than to stay, then we will stop. The automobile has made a powerful beginning in the creation of an environment in which such a threat is integral. Every day the new elements click into place: the risk, the cost, the delay, the bother, the crowding, the congestion. The rage.”

To read those angry words more than a decade later is also to remember Mark Twain’s musings that reports of his death had been greatly exaggerated. Certainly Jerome can be forgiven. Not only was he a resident of Vermont—a centre of what was then known as the counterculture, with its reverence for the message against materialism contained in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden—but he gave voice to the widespread frustration with the excesses of what another impassioned critic, Kenneth Schneider, had labelled “tyrannus mobilitis.”

When Jerome wrote his anti-car missive, the United States and Canada had just completed a postwar infatuation with the car. It had become the symbol of the good life in the 1950s, when recovery from the drab austerity of a wartime economy triggered a kind of mindless ebullience in North America. Even frigid relations with the Soviet Union and brief economic dips seemed unimportant while riding through the countryside in a Chevy convertible with the top down. Overpowered, tricolored, chrome-laden, airplane-finned automobiles oeemed a perfect form of mobility for a time when President Dwight Eisenhower and his wife, Mamie, had apparently converted the White House into a small-town homestead.

By the 1960s compact functional cars —many of them imported—were avail-

able in an environment dominated by “longer, lower, lighter” behemoths. Still, the period will be remembered as a time of roaring, four-barrel, four-onthe-floor muscle cars. Cheap gasoline and a booming economy fuelled the horsepower race, and such wonderfully mindless advertising slogans as Chevrolet’s 1965 jingle, “New fire, new flair, new freedom from care,” were popular. As the 1970s began, the average car built in North America weighed more than two tons, contained more than 200 horsepower and guzzled more than a gallon of gasoline every 15 miles. Those 16-foot vehicles were also lethal instruments of death, killing almost 50,000 motorists and pedestrians each year in the United States and 4,500 in Canada. And their exhaust fumes were a leading cause of air pollution.

Still, only three years after Jerome inveighed against car culture, the first of two Middle Eastern oil embargos ended the joyride of the oversized automobile. Lineups for gas helped drive “tyrannus mobilitis” from the streets, and governments hastened the process with new taxes, safety regulations, emission standards and fuel consumption requirements to conserve energy. The Japanese produced the right vehicles for a time marked by the perception of fuel shortages and shipped fleets of small, efficient automobiles to meet the new demands for minimalism.

That massive shift in consumer tastes shattered Detroit’s complacency. Since 1950, when giant, short-stroke, highcompression V-8 engines and modern three-speed automatic transmissions had first appeared, the Big Three U.S. automakers—General Motors, Ford and Chrysler—had resisted innovation. They had maintained their profit lines by annual cosmetic changes to the same old engines and chassis—a new body design here, a revamped grille there and such esthetic delights as vinyl roofs, opera windows and fake wire wheels to lure customers into the showrooms.

But even before the oil embargos chilled North America’s idyllic romance with the big car, there were signs that the affair was coming to an end. The Volkswagen, that beetle-shaped curiosity from Germany, was already popular, selling 386,825 cars in the United States and Canada in 1970. Its high efficiency and low cost conveyed an embarrassing message that Detroit preferred to ig-

nore: Ferdinand Porsche had designed the “people’s car” in Adolf Hitler’s Reich in the mid-1930s. Clearly, this 40year-old design, and not the soft-sprung metal whales still rolling off the assembly lines in Detroit and Windsor, represented the wave of the future. But that automotive portent zoomed unnoticed

past the eyes of American automobile executives.

Meanwhile, outside Detroit great advances in electronics, television, computers and aerospace industries had caught the attention of a new generation of consumers—the children of the postwar baby boom. They were spending their money on such high-tech developments as sophisticated stereo systems and single-lens reflex cameras and they also represented an untapped market for high-tech automobiles. The first signs of that affinity showed up, naturally enough, in California, where such sophisticated cars as the Porsche and

Mercedes-Benz were selling well by the mid-1960s. By the early 1970s the import share of the market in California was hovering near 40 per cent.

For many drivers whose social mobility was propelled by more subtle stimuli than a desire to own large, chromeladen automobiles, the Volkswagen and its imitators represented an awareness of the new postwar fascination with high technology and environmental concerns. And for some it was also a visible rebellion against conspicuous consumption. It is not coincidental that the Volkswagen, both in the form of the “Beetle sedan” and its larger bus, be-

came vehicular symbols of the hippie movement in the late 1960s. What better way for the youth of America to reject the complacent values of their parents than to travel in a cramped, underpowered sedan built by former enemies? At the same time, the Volkswagen was equally acceptable to wealthy pediatricians who drove the thrifty little cars to golf dates at their country clubs. No rebellion there, but simply a response to new technology and higher quality.

Clearly, despite an unsettling habit of rocking alarmingly in high winds, the unasssuming Beetle was a threat to Detroit’s long, sleek gas guzzlers. And by 1974 General Motors had embarked on a multibillion-dollar conversion to smaller, fuel-efficient machines, many with front-wheel drive. Conservative auto executives who had spent decades deriding the “little foreign bugs” suddenly began proclaiming the glories of compact automobiles. When the other American car manufacturers quickly followed GM’s lead, the changeover completed a shift in attitude toward all cars—not only by the people who made them but, more importantly, by the people who bought and drove them.

Soon, unfamiliar technical developments including front-wheel drive and rack-and-pinion steering became advertising buzzwords—and almost as quickly a part of drivers’ vocabulary.

Indeed, for drivers, functional design had raced past styling for its own sake in a few short years. The idea that a stolid company like Chrysler would create the Dodge Caravan and the Plymouth Voyager would have been unthinkable in 1970. That those mini-vans would take North America by storm, with nearly 300,000 sold in 1984, its first year, is even more amazing. The mobile box, first pioneered by Volkswagen in its famous vans 30 years earlier, finally came of age in the 1980s. No long hoods or opera windows here. Instead, the T-Wagons and their imitators that crowd the streets are classic representatives of the new car ethos—that is, the most economical use of space possible on a fourwheel platform.

The new models’ appeal transcends all social and economic boundaries and indicates that a practical desire for function and efficiency has replaced the old infatuation with horsepower and chrome. As a result, the automobile is becoming a responsible member of society. But although North America’s wild love affair with the car is over, an enduring marriage based on reliability and efficient performance has begun.

Brock Yates, a Wyoming, N.Y.-based writer on cars and a chronicler of the North American obsession with automobiles, is the author of the 1983 book The Decline and Fall of the American Automobile Industry.